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Strange Ranger - Remembering the Rockets Music Album Reviews

The best album of the Philadelphia band’s deep and underappreciated catalog dares to ask what comes after indie rock.
For Strange Ranger, indie rock isn’t just a genre; it’s an actual lifestyle, the prism through which every aspect of adulthood can be projected and understood. The 2016 album Rot Forever, by an earlier incarnation of the band, started its 72 minutes of Up Records fanfic with the line “She played rock guitar” and peaked with “Won’t you come see Pile with me?” Going by the name Sioux Falls at the time, core members Isaac Eiger and Fred Nixon were kids in Bozeman, Montana, who were prone to let one or two ideas stretch out for six minutes because that’s what their heroes Built to Spill and Modest Mouse would do. They moved to Portland for the followup, Daymoon, and it felt like a higher education, going deeper into the Pac NW canon and local scene politics (key song: “House Show”). They’re now in Philadelphia, and Remembering the Rockets is everything one might expect from…

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Sonic Youth - Washing Machine Music Album Reviews

Today on Pitchfork, we are publishing new reviews of five important Sonic Youth records, each one a pivotal moment in the career of one of the most exceptional and historically influential bands.

Sonic Youth’s superpower was always their ability to contain their experimental sprawl just enough. Formed as much as an art project as a musical one, they’ve always been a part of the fringe. But their place within experimentalism’s wild terrain was solidly centrist. Way weirder stuff sat to the left, like the no wave scene of musicians who pummeled their instruments more than they played them, and to the right, art nerds with milquetoast pock-rock groups who occasionally borrowed from the silvery shine Sonic Youth lacquered over most of their songs. Their fifth album, 1988’s Daydream Nation, was the bullseye in the center of the Venn diagram between in and out, a gleaming collection of anthems with guitar noise and beautiful riffs doled out in equal measure.


Perfection is a difficult thing to bounce back from, especially when it coincides with the end of the ’80s, a decade whose Reagen-era doom was hospitable to making a racket in protest. In the years after Daydream Nation, they released a number of uneven albums, Goo, Dirty, and Experimental Jetset, Trash, and No Star. Within each, though, were a few perfect moments that pointed a way forward. Towards the end of 1992’s Dirty is “JC,” a song that, in hindsight, served as a blueprint 1995’s Washing Machine. The fuzz is still present, but it’s paired with the engine of Steve Shelley’s steady hip-hop drumbeat. The song is sung by bass player Kim Gordon, who actually really speaks more than sings, each line like a challenge to the one before it. “You’re walking through my heart once more, don’t forget to close the door,” she sings as an elegy for a friend who was murdered. Despite its more traditional rock structure, the song is still decorated by the wide expanse of feedback by guitarist Thurston Moore. Arguably, it has quite an ugly final 30 seconds, perhaps unnecessary after a deeply moving three and a half minutes. That must have been an argument Sonic Youth heard enough, as come 1995’s Washing Machine, their squall had softened into sparkles.

At least sometimes. The album begins with “Becuz,” a nasty romp led by Gordon’s groovy bass playing and her whispered sneer. Like on “JC,” Shelley’s backbeat anchors the song as it begins to swell. After two minutes, the whole thing gathers into that typical Sonic Youth feedback tornado, this one fairly heavily resembling the sound of a dentist drill. But something different happens: The song’s basic structure reassembles and keeps going, like the melody wrestled control back from all the disharmony.

The tension created by that push and pull is the prevailing theme of the album, these longtime purveyors of scuzz finally taking a peek at the bright side. “Junkies Promise,” which follows “Becuz,” begins with a sharp snap of feedback, before falling into a cocky noise-rock song for three minutes, with Moore doing a strong Iggy Pop imitation with his vocals. And then, for whatever reason, the song totally pivots. Actually, it pivots twice: first into a rhythmic chug, the preamble for the more interesting, kind of funky coda. In structure, it’s not so different than “JC,” a feral moment at the end for a bit of punctuation, but instead of playing in the sandbox, the whole thing coagulates, Shelley switches to the toms, and the band gets its groove on. They seem about as surprised as we are, and the song drops out mid-riff.

It is a gorgeous ascent to new a plane for Sonic Youth. Not that they didn’t have pretty moments before—Daydream Nation is full of them—but they seem willing to give over entire tracks and their narratives to beauty, not just use a touch of gleaming guitar as an accent piece before returning to chaos. “Unwind” in particular is a revelation, even though it is also nothing new. The songwriting is typical Sonic Youth with the structure up front and the freedom in the back. But here everything is softened. Moore doesn’t bark as he sometimes does, instead he purrs. If he sometimes (literally) used a screwdriver on his guitar, here it sounds like he’s using a paintbrush. If they’re a New York band at heart, this song definitely took a Mediterranean vacation. “Love is out into the sundry light, you sing, unwind,” Moore sings to end the song’s first part before the freeform moment begins. There, something insane happens: Shelley breaks out a maraca. It’s deeply seductive and totally unexpected. The guitars and bass follow the loosened vibe and finally unwind.

The album’s middle section is hit and miss, though the same could likely be said for all alternative rock records made in the mid-’90s. The doo-wop influence of “Little Trouble Girl” is sweet, if more of a novelty, though the Kim Deal guest vocals are a welcome surprise, making the band sound surprisingly radio-friendly. “No Queen Blues” is serpentine in nature, adjacent to ’70s stoner rock. “Panty Lies” is the best of the trio, with Gordon illustrating the mental aspect of seduction, “Don’t just stare, ’cause she’s not wearing underwear/Oh how rude, at least she’s got your attention square/Don’t you realize, it’s just her disguise.” She also—and there’s not really another way to say this—scats, which is another bizarre and pleasing surprise.

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The album’s final two songs could not be more different from each other. “Skip Tracer” is a showcase for Lee Ranaldo, the band’s second guitarist, who is given a spotlight or two as lead singer on most Sonic Youth albums. He’s something like the Kelly Rowland to Moore’s Beyoncé, beloved but in the background due to the band leader’s overwhelming star power. Taken together, Ranaldo’s Sonic Youth songs are consistent across eras and “Skip Tracer” is perhaps his finest moment. The song starts with one large strum, like a gong announcing the entrance of an emperor. Its echo hangs in the air for 20 seconds before the song resets to complete silence and begins in earnest: “None of us know where we’re trying to get to, what kind of life we’re trying to build;” “L.A. is more confusing now than anywhere I’ve ever been to/I’m from New York City, breathe it out and let it in;” “The guitar guy played real good feedback, and super sounding riffs/With his mild-mannered look on, yeah he was truly hip.” It’s a treatment for an indie film, a blues song, a memoir wrapped in one, a highwire act Ranaldo pulls off like he’s Bukowski doing an audiobook.

And then comes “The Diamond Sea” which is the most Sonic Youth song you can imagine, and not just because it’s 20 minutes long and mostly guitar noise. At the time of its release, the song received a radio edit, chopped down to 5:30, which does a pretty good job of replicating the original’s ups and down, but entirely misses the point. Most of the 15 minutes it discards are comprised of the band taking a long exhale, noise replaced with the suggestion of noise, the unstructured notes sounding as delicate as windchimes. Sour twangs and small pings of cymbal dash in and out, and occasionally there is a more aggressive guitar whir. And then actual noise returns. It sounds like machinery gone haywire and then eventually dying. It’s a calculated moment, though, this scuffed-up exclamation point on the end of a freeform poem. With a band like Sonic Youth, so concerned with tapping into outer realms, the pockmarks are necessary. Enjoying this bliss? We all know it’s not going to last.


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